If not for Indiana Pacers Coach Frank Vogel’s momentary lapse in judgment in sitting Roy Hibbert, and Paul George’s overly aggressive attempt to contest a jump shot — which allowed LeBron James to convert his incredible, laser-quick game-saving layup with 2.2 seconds remaining in overtime of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals — the Miami Heat’s season could have ended in Game 6 Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
The eulogies for the dynasty that never was would have begun in earnest, speculation mounting about whether Dwyane Wade’s right knee will ever allow him to play at a superstar level again; if Chris Bosh needs to be traded this summer to provide more front court girth; and more importantly, if James will scorn Miami in July 2014 and possibly make a return to the place that he previously left behind (Cleveland).
Instead, those fortunate breaks for Miami in the first game of this hotly contested series mean that the Heat’s embarrassing91-77 loss to the fearless young Pacers merely set up a Game 7.
With a victory, James, Wade and Bosh can hold off such conversations for at least another two weeks and provide more justification for their controversial decisions to join forces in an attempt to win multiple titles. But the troubling disappearance of Bosh and Wade in the past three games, and James’s obligatory reversion to his “Cleveland days,” has raised doubts about Miami’s quest to earn a third straight trip to the NBA Finals.
“I probably will not be able to relax until the game starts,” James said. “This is the position we’re in and those guys as professionals, as champions, we’ll figure it out. And me as the leader, I’ll have to help them figure it out.”
Getting three all-star players to coexist and sacrifice has always been a challenge for Miami. James was often too deferential in the first season, which resulted in the Heat losing to Dallas in the Finals two years ago. Wade stepped aside to let James take control last season, and Miami dusted off Oklahoma City in five games. The trio worked in unison until matching up against a relentless Indiana team that can have a star-turning outing for any member of its starting five. Now, Wade is hurting and out of rhythm, Bosh is lost and low on confidence and James feels compelled to carry the team alone.
If the Heat can’t resolve its problems, David Stern’s last NBA Finals as commissioner would otherwise feature a matchup between former ABA teams in small markets, San Antonio and Indiana, that hardcore basketball junkies would love but casual fans would largely ignore.
James has been in three Game 7s in his NBA career, losing his first two as a member of the Cavaliers and claiming his first victory last year with Miami in the conference finals against Boston. But last season, the Heat arrived in Miami for the decisive game riding the momentum of a legendary performance from James, who was accompanied by two healthy and competent running mates.
Against Indiana, Bosh and Wade have mostly been running and hiding as both contend with the Pacers’ league-best defense, respective injuries and other unexplained setbacks. Since the $35 million duo combined for 35 points in Miami’s resounding 114-96 win in Game 3, Bosh and Wade have scored a total of 55 points on 16-of-55 shooting and led Coach Erik Spoelstra to look elsewhere to find help for James, the four-time league most valuable player.
“They’re our brothers. We’re all behind them,” Spoelstra said. “If anything, it’s on me. They’re obviously a major part of what we do, and I need to find a way to get them in places where they can be really aggressive. Now Game 7s, adversity and backs against the wall, I know those two men’s character. This is when they come up big in these moments.”
Spoelstra’s faith hasn’t been supported by much this postseason, as the 31-year-old Wade struggles with a problematic right knee that has been nagging him for a few months. Wade averaged 21.2 points as the Heat cruised through the regular season and even challenged the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers’ consecutive games streak by winning 27 in a row. But in the playoffs, Wade has only scored at least 20 points once — or half the number of times he has failed to reach at least eight.
Wade has been unusually timid against the Pacers, unable to get to the basket around the aggressive play and length of Paul George and Lance Stephenson. Noticeably frustrated after the loss on Saturday, Wade blamed his limited production on fewer touches, which was either a complaint directed toward Spoelstra or James, who attempted 20 fewer shots than Wade and Bosh combined in this series (102 to 122).
“We’ve got to do a better job, all of us, helping get each other involved in the game,” Wade said. “We’ve got to do a better job of making sure me and Chris can have opportunities to succeed . . . We’ve got to try to figure it out in this locker room, and not leave it to an individual to self-will it.”
Bosh tweaked his right ankle while trying to defend former Georgetown center Roy Hibbert in Game 4 and hasn’t been the same since. After scoring 49 points in the first three games, Bosh has been limited to just 19 in the past three games, including a season-low five in Game 6.
“Everything is brand new for me,” Bosh said. “This year has been a struggle for me, but, you know, if you want to win and defend your championship, you have to go places you haven’t been before . . . I am going to have to fight through it. I know my teammates have my back. I just have to go and get the job done and stop letting them down.”
In the last 10 years, the home team has won 18 of 26 Game 7s. Indiana was a mediocre road team in the regular season but has the confidence of knowing that it has already won once in Miami this postseason — and came a few tenths of a second short of winning twice.
“It’s not promised,” James said. “Each and every year there are 30 teams that would love to be a part of this. We should all cherish this moment. At the end of the day, go out and play, have fun. It’s just a game of basketball. That’s all it is. It’s just a game of basketball at the end of the day.”